Remembrance, Forgiveness, Gratitude

The Rev. Bean Murray
St. Michael’s, Little Rock
September 11, 2011
Proper 19A
Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Ten years ago on this date, at 8:46 a.m., our country entered an uncharted state of existence. All of us who are more than 15 years old today remember going through stages of disbelief, sorrow, anger, and confusion. The World Trade Center towers were hit by planes and the towers fell—that was impossible. A plane rammed into the Pentagon. Brave men thwarted a fourth plane bound for Washington. The whole world seemed to be turned upside down into a surreal, impossible plot to a bad movie. Our hearts couldn’t hold the pain and the grief. We didn’t have an instruction book on how to cope with this horrible thing, a kind of thing that had never happened before.

We felt so helpless. We gave blood for the injured, but there were few who survived to be treated. We found flags to put up in our front windows, on our cars, in our yards. We went through our day-to-day activities with 9/11 always on our minds. We always had the TV or radio turned on because we didn’t know what might happen next.

Many turned to their churches, synagogues, and other places of worship for comfort and answers. Some spoke for God and said it was God’s retribution for our sinful behavior as a country. Most prayed just for solace, just because there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, just to be assured that God hadn’t abandoned us.

And now it’s 10 years later—a long time. But for those who grieve, 10 years is the blink of an eye. And on this day of remembrance, our lectionary reminds us of the hard lesson of forgiveness. I don’t know about you, but I still have a lot of forgiving to do.

How often should we forgive, asks Peter of Jesus, seven times? That seems generous. Oh, no says Jesus, 77. This is metaphorical language. It doesn’t mean an exact number. How often should we forgive? The answer is over and over again—as many times as it takes to really mean it, to really forgive—until the resentment goes away.

The Greek word for “forgive” means literally to let go. Forgiving a debt means to let it go, to erase it. This is not forgive and forget; we can’t erase a terrible wrong from our memory, but we can let go of the resentment that continues to poison our lives.

The parable in the Gospel reading demonstrates God’s infinite ability to forgive us. As Theologian Austin Farrer says, God’s forgiveness means far more than that God doesn’t hold grudges.

The slave’s debt in the parable is gigantic, more than anyone could ever repay. That is like our infinite debt to God, who forgives our wrong doings all the way from little thoughtless things to incredibly selfish and hurtful behavior.

The slave was unable to forgive the way he was forgiven even though the debtowed him was much smaller.

Forgiving is something we say we do when we say the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us.” Every time I pray the prayer, if I am paying attention and not just praying on autopilot, I think how hard that really is. How hard it is—no matter how much I try—can I ever forgive as God forgives me? Not without God’s continuing patient help.

We have been told that we are created in God’s image. I don’t think that this means we can look at ourselves and see what God looks like—two legs, two arms, a face, eyes, ears. But, I have come to believe that being made in God’s image means that within us is God’s infinite ability for unconditional love and God’s infinite capacity for forgiveness. We have that capacity also if we choose to tap into it. God gave us Jesus to show us what it looks like for a human being to love unconditionally and to forgive ultimately, even to the point of death.

Hanging on to resentments paralyzes us and prevents us from moving ahead in being God’s agents in the world. Dwelling on wrongs done to us doesn’t do anything to the offender. Once, I had a lot of resentment built up over things done to me by a particular person. These resentments caused me a lot of grief and anger and self-pity. Someone asked me why I didn’t try to forgive him. I replied that I didn’t want to let him off the hook. My friend asked me if that person even knew he was on the hook. I realized in a flash that he probably didn’t even know there was a hook. The only person harmed by my resentment was me. I realized the absolute futility of my resentment—and the wisdom of forgiveness, of letting go.

Before 9/11, we all had confronted evil in some fashion or other, but this evil was a new species. We’ve been told to love our enemies. We knew these enemies were going to be very hard to love. Last week’s Epistle reading told us to overcome evil with good. Doing good in the face of evil that has occurred is a way to work off resentments.

The greatest example of this that I have witnessed is also connected to 9/11. Merry Helen and Harold Hedges and my husband and I had the sacred privilege of working at St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero. This place of worship that predated the American Revolution, where George Washington came to pray, was miraculously spared from the adjacent devastation. It became a place of rest and refuge for the Ground Zero recovery work crews and a place of pilgrimage. Thousands, maybe millions, of letters and tokens of love came pouring in there from all over the world. They covered pews, walls, doors, and the iron fence around the churchyard. We were there a full seven months after the 9/11 attack and they were still coming in, each one is now cataloged and preserved. Love and shared grief were displayed everywhere. I was reminded of the words of the catechism I learned to be confirmed: “What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” St. Paul’s and all this outpouring of love were certainly that.

Workers came for meals, to sleep on the pews, and the box pew where George Washington had prayed was the station for the massage therapist. Volunteers brought their gifts—cooks, musicians, good listeners. Pilgrims arrived and stood at the altar—a fireman in full regalia, a flight attendant who lived in Seattle who knew some of those on the planes (apologizing for taking so long to get there), and returning sailors from the Theodore Roosevelt the first ship engaged after the attack made St. Paul’s and Ground Zero their first stop after docking. Regular church services continued while the ministry took place all around the outer space of the nave.

Sunday turned out to be a chilly day and the coffee, hot chocolate and hot tea station were popular. Paul and I worked there about half of our shift. It was a good place to get to meet and visit and hear stories. After handing several cups of hot chocolate across the table to workers from the “Pit” and having these recipients remove them gently from my hands, instead of saying, “Here you go,” I found that what I felt like saying was, “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.” It was communion—the chalice of the Styrofoam cup and the blood of hot chocolate. It was holy, and it was given and received in love.

Gifts abounded. Most of the Sunday workers were Jewish. They did that so Christians who were regular workers could worship at their own churches. As a priest from Trinity Wall Street brought a group of out-of-town clergy on a tour, he told them that someone had asked him when St. Paul’s was going to get back to being a church. He saw the irony in that. I thought, when was a place ever more a church than that one.

Today is a day of remembrance, of forgiveness, and of gratitude for those serving our country. Remembering is holy. Forgiveness is difficult. Gratitude is something we often forget. As we reflect on the significance of this day, may we remember in the words of today’s collect, to let go and let God’s holy spirit direct and rule our hearts in all things.